Joe Koziol may look as if he is playing indoor soccer, but he really is climbing a mountain.
Who would have guessed?
Koziol, 24, is the second-leading goal scorer and third leading scorer overall for the Baltimore Blast. He is having the best season of his pro career, so it comes as something of a shock when the former Loyola College Greyhound says that every day he is fighting to rebuild his confidence.
"At times I think I'm a skillful player," said Koziol, a midfielder. "And, then, at other times, I think I don't belong on the floor. Where's my confidence? Probably back in Cleveland. It comes out sometimes and then it goes back in hiding, back into a closet."
He hopes his confidence will be evident tonight when the Blast (11-12) faces the Wichita Wings (13-10) at the Baltimore Arena.
Three years ago, Koziol was coming out of Loyola with his confidence intact. He had been a four-year starter at forward/midfield and had helped the Greyhounds achieve national recognition with three NCAA tournament bids. He spent that summer after graduation with the Boston Bolts of the American Professional Soccer League. He arrived in Cleveland in the fall as the MSL's No. 3 draft choice.
"Going to Cleveland was either an awakening for me or a slap in the face," Koziol says. "That team, you look down their roster and every guy there had seven or eight years' experience. It was tough to get playing time with those kinds of players in front of you. . . . I think the lowest level came in the playoffs last season. There we were playing for a championship and I didn't even feel as if I was part of the team. There were so many cliques and groups, I hated going to practice."
He says he hopes Cleveland thought of him as more than "HTG" (human training gear). In two season's with the Crunch, Koziol played in 50 games and scored 15 points, 10 goals, five assists.
"I think Joey has to be bigger than the Cleveland situation," said Blast coach Kenny Cooper. "He has speed, offensive skill and great potential, but he has to use the Cleveland experience as a building block.
"We've tried to build his confidence, and I know he appreciates what we've done. But there is no use [in] me believing in you if you don't believe in yourself. Every now and then, that skeleton seems to surface. He's scored two goals in games for us, but he has the ability to score three and four."
When Koziol returned to Baltimore last August, Cooper didn't realize how much impact Koziol's two years in Cleveland had had.
"I found myself with a player with all this talent, but it basically was a shell," Cooper said. "He needed someone to believe in him. But give him credit, he's been producing and he's shown some terrific moves. But sometimes, he still drifts in and drifts out of the game. It's a challenge for him and my biggest hope is that it does not keep him from reaching his full potential."
This season, Koziol has played in each of the Blast's 23 games and produced 13 goals and nine assists for 22 points.
"I had thought about retiring from the game, but then the Blast called," Koziol said. "Kenny has given me a chance to play and get my confidence back. I'm happy I've stuck with it, because Kenny has stuck with me this season. The whole team has.
"Guys like Billy [Ronson] and Iain [Fraser] have pushed me a little and Kenny encourages me, and it helps," he continued. "The more I play, the less they have to do it. I shouldn't be happy with where I am, and I'm not. I want to be a lot more consistent, like Billy and Iain. But I also know I've made progress."